Templar Poetry, 2006 - £3
In 1960, Anne Sexton published her first book of poems To Bedlam and Part Way Back, and one poem, ‘Her Kind’, settled in as the keystone of the collection. That poem, written in the voice of a ‘witch,’ is so named only because no one can understand her. The witch is being transported to her death, waving “nude arms at villages going by, / learning the last bright routes.” For many young women making poems in 1960, ‘Her Kind’ was a standard to be waved high and simultaneously held close to the heart as a poem that made real the strength of both difference and prejudice: “A woman like that is not afraid to die./ I have been her kind.”
We read that poem seriously because we suspect it has been written slowly, looking at ‘witchcraft’ from a deep place of knowing. It is not a poem ‘about’; it is rather a poem revealing. In Waiting to Burn, Angela Cleland also writes from the point of view of a witch awaiting her turn to burn at the stake, but her ten-page title poem, one of the stronger poems in this brief collection, feels as if it is a poem written only through historical memory, lacking the resonance born of personal experience—and that echo is one that is missed. Without an undercurrent of emotional intensity, Cleland’s work is smart, ironic, and intentional but strangely flat and unconvincing, as unconvincing as the labored speech that the accused woman mouths as she is tied to the stake:
I will turn sun to moon
drench the world with myself.
slip coolly down the throats
of everything, and I will be
in the trough, the leaf, running
through your veins. I will be
watching. I will remain.
Only fairy-tale witches say such things—not women who have been misunderstood, harassed by society, and then sentenced to a cruel death by fire. Such women understand that it is not ‘poetic’ revenge that gives strength but witness: “I have been her kind.” Cleland’s poem is one ‘about’ a witch, an imaginary and triumphant witch, and like much of this smart and well-organized collection, it feels as yet unripe, still on its way to becoming. Nonetheless, we know that although many of the poems in this prize-winning pamphlet feel like poems that are really exercises—exercises in voice, diction, or form—Cleland’s selection of subject matter marks her as poet who cares about her world, and such care is her strength.